Tom Gilson

And the Skeptics Are Silent

It’s been a month. I’m still waiting for an answer. Who wrote Jesus’ character, and how?

I said before, they treat Jesus as such an easy character to write, any old story-scrambler could come up with him. That’s my term for it, not theirs, naturally. As I argue in Too Good to be False, though, that’s really what they should call it.

Skeptics (typically) say the story of Jesus started to grow after he got himself executed. His followers were devastated; they’d though he’d be their messiah, and here he was, dead and defeated. They found a way to restore their psychological and spiritual balance by imagining he’d risen from the dead. They spread the story, and it took off. It got passed along by word of mouth all around the Mediterranean, a “Telephone Game” being spread, “third, fourth, even nineteenth-hand,” says Bart Ehrman, across multiple languages and multiple countries.

It still amazes me what  Ehrman says happens with a Telephone Game of that magnitude. The stories “change.” That’s why you have inconsistencies like the number of angels at the tomb, or the way the birth narrative is told by the two Gospels that tell it.

I’ll agree with him this far: Stories going through that process would change. But that’s not the right word for it. There’s no way they could go through all that without getting completely scrambled, up one side and down the other.

So aren’t the different birth narratives a sign of scrambling? Not really. They complement much, much more than they contradict each other. And there’s one feature of the story of Jesus that is manifestly not scrambled, the way it really ought to be if the skeptics were right. One major feature. The most central feature of all: the character of the story’s protagonist, Jesus Christ.

False Charges

Jesus is astonishingly consistent across all four Gospels, in big ways and in small. Sure, the different writers emphasize different aspects of his work and character. That’s to be expected when you have four people writing from four points of view. And these “inconsistencies” don’t stack up the way skeptics tend to think they do.

They say he’s different in Mark than in Luke. Not really. My friend Erik Manning explains this well; in fact, he does a great job on a long list of supposed inconsistencies.

They say he’s different in John than in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). I’m jumping the gun here a bit, but I can tell you that when Lydia McGrew’s Eye of the Beholder comes out next year, that’s going to be hard to sustain. I’m reading an advance review copy now, and finding that she covers that ground very nicely.

They specifically say his deity only shows up in John. Wrong. In Too Good to be False I show multiple ways in which he acts as God in the Synoptics. Rob Bowman and Ed Komoszewski go into much more detail besides.

Consistent in the Big Picture

But that’s taking the defense. Actually it’s the skeptics who have a theory that needs defending. Their theory should predict significant detectable scrambling at all points of the story, but Jesus is recognizably Jesus, anywhere you look. Here I can appeal to the witness of history. Ever since we had the Gospels, it’s been possible to speak of “the story of Jesus,” and people will know who you’re talking about.

There’s one  issue with that, I recognize. Zoom out to the big picture, and the scene can get blurry — blurry enough that careless people can talk about “The Jesus of compassion,” or “The Jesus who never judges,” or even “The socialist Jesus.” He’s an extremely complex character. Blur one aspect of his complexity here, shade a different aspect of it there, and you can come to false conclusions about different “Jesuses.”

Actually, one of the most strikingly consistent things about him in the Gospels is the 360-degree complexity in which all four present him. There is no simple Jesus anywhere you look. In Too Good to be False I show multiple, objectively describable ways in which he remains astonishingly consistent — far more than he should be, if his story had come from the skeptics’ story-scrambler.

Consistency in the Details

Besides that, his consistency in the details is just as striking as his constancy in the big picture. (It’s easier to demonstrate, too.) Here I quote from Too Good to be False, pages 135-136.

  • One of the Gospels could have told a story of Jesus using his extraordinary powers for his own benefit. That would have marred the perfection of his self-sacrificial other-centeredness. None of them did that.
  • One of them could have quoted him saying, “Thus says the Lord” as a source of authority in his teaching, rather than relying on his own authority. None did that.
  • One of them might have showed him being thrown off balance in a debate, his brilliance being slightly less than absolute for it. No Gospel includes that kind of story.
  • One Gospel could have shown him learning, growing, advancing somehow in character. He wouldn’t have been perfect from the beginning that way. But that never happened in any Gospel.
  • One Gospel author might have depicted him “having faith” in God, or worshiping the Father. Never do we see him doing either of these.
  • One Gospel could have shown him deliberating with himself, reasoning through alternatives, maybe even agonizing over a quandary. But none shows him responding with anything but quick, intuitive wisdom.
  • One might have had him asking an opinion of a disciple, other than the well-known and (completely different) “Who do others say that I am, and who do you say that I am?” No Gospel shows him asking such a question.
  • One Gospel writer could have had him going off course on his mission, seeking a kingdom of this world. That doesn’t happen, even slightly.
  • One Gospel could have portrayed him going easily through his sufferings, emphasizing his deity at the expense of his humanity. That doesn’t happen anywhere in the accounts.
  • Conversely, one of the Gospel authors could have depict- ed him shrinking from the cross, even after he’d settled the matter with the Father at Gethsemane. There’s not a hint of that anywhere.

Who Wrote Jesus’ Character, and How?

Now, obviously that’s skipping over much, much explanation, 134 pages’ worth. (If skeptics want to know the info behind each of these points, they know where to find it.) The point should be clear, though: Jesus in the Gospels shows no sign of coming out of even the mildest story-scrambler. Yet that’s where skeptics think his character came from. Tell me — is that believable? Skeptics, who really did write his story, and how?

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14 thoughts on “And the Skeptics Are Silent

  1. Hi Tom,

    Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought that you only wanted skeptics to answer if we’d read your book first, so that we don’t go over any points you’ve successfully critiqued? I’ve been holding off for that reason. I’m happy to try answering now if that’s something you’re happy with.

  2. Also, I have a question about something you’ve written here (with apologies, because of course I might well be asking something that you’ve already answered in your book).

    You wrote: ‘There’s no way they could go through all that [transmission of stories] without getting completely scrambled, up one side and down the other.’

    Regardless of what processes went into writing Jesus’s character in the gospels, it seems to me that the fact that the stories were spread by word of mouth throughout distant lands is pretty unarguable; I mean, this is what Paul dedicated his life to doing. If you think this would have scrambled them past recognition, how does that fit with what you believe happened? Surely if this process scrambled the stories, it’s going to have done that regardless of who Jesus originally was or what he was like? If you don’t think the story spread by word of mouth with inevitable changes along the way, then what do you think happened?

  3. Good questions, thanks, Dr. Sarah.

    Yes, actually I’d like to hear answers to the questions as I raised them in the book. What I’m discovering repeatedly is that people will think this is an argument they’re familiar with, and they’ll answer in those terms. But this is a new argument, at least in the last century or so, and everyone so far who’s tried to address it has missed it. They guess what the argument is, they guess wrong, so they answer something I didn’t write.

    This is an interesting learning process for me, actually. I’m not talking about learning the material; I’ve been studying that long enough. I’m talking about discovering what it’s like to be trying to make something known that’s this completely new.

    The case I make is easy enough to summarize: “The character of Jesus as presented in the Gospels is too unique, too complex, too unexpected, too consistent, and too good to have been produced through legendary evolutionary processes.” To really make the case, though, requires 90 pages unfolding those “too” clauses, and then more chapters showing how impossible it is that legendary evolutionary processes could have produced such a character. And without that, the case is too incomplete to assess or critique.

    As for your second question, yes, of course there was oral transmission. The question, however, is what route the story took on its way to reaching the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The answer given down through church history has been that Matthew and John are mostly eyewitness testimony, and Mark and Luke are secondhand reports of eyewitness testimony. Of course there was interdependence between them as well, and it’s entirely possible that the authors used other documents (the hypothesized Q, for example) to supplement their memory and research. But this is still worlds distant from the Telephone Game.

  4. I can quite understand wanting to have these questions answered only by people who’ve read the book you put so much effort into writing. However, I must say that in that case I do think it’s quite out of order of you to be saying things like ‘And the skeptics are silent. It’s been a month. I’m still waiting for an answer’ as though that somehow reflected badly on skeptics! If you want an answer only from skeptics who’ve read your book, then of course that’s going to take a while; most people don’t rush out to spend £13.99 on a book and read it just so that they can explain why they disagree. It feels as though you’re trying to equate the delay to ‘oh, look, skeptics can’t answer this’ when in fact it’s typically going to be just that reading and replying to your book is, realistically, typically going to be way down the priority list for people who disagree.

    (I can understand being impatient to hear contrasting views; I feel that way whenever I publish a blog post, so I can’t imagine how eager for debate I’d feel if I’d put in the work to write a whole book! I just feel that it’s rather unfair to talk as though it’s some kind of weakness on the part of skeptics not to be jumping immediately to buy your book and debate you.)

    Best wishes,


  5. Thanks! I hope to buy your book when second-hand copies are available more cheaply (I like to watch the pennies) so it could take a while, but I’ll look forward to reading it when that happens. Have a good day!

  6. You “demonstrate” that Jesus is the greatest character in literature? Even though that assessment could only be subjective? I think not.

    James Bond, Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock Holmes, Lisbeth Salander, Han Solo, Cersei Lannister, Peter Parker, Arya Stark, Holden Caulfield, Hermione Granger, Huckleberry Finn, Rodion Raskolnikov—these are some remarkable fictional characters, often written by different authors for different formats (novels, movies, television, plays, comic books).

    You’ll find the representations of such characters by different authors are often consistent enough to be compelling, because it’s possible for different people to describe the same thing, especially if there’s a template. For example, there have been numerous descriptions of trees by many writers from all over the world. Often those trees are just made up, but wouldn’t you know it: the descriptions typically refer to green leaves, branches, roots, bark, and the like.

    The template for Jesus came from the stock rebel characters in Cynic and Stoic philosophy and from Jewish scripture and Jewish experience (of being a routinely conquered and oppressed but righteous and prophetic people). Mark did the Christian literary franchise the service of penning the first coherent portrait of Jesus’s character, based on such sources. The other gospel authors followed suit, most likely with Mark’s narrative in hand. So that explains the consistency.

    As for the inconsistency between, say, John and the synoptic gospels, well sometimes authors go rogue, don’t they? It’s like that time they made Spider Man 3, when Peter Parker went all bad boy, combed his hair differently, and started dancing (badly) in the street.

  7. It makes a whole lot more sense than you think — objectively, even. I’ll explain in a blog post in the next few days. Or you could buy the book and find out why claim isn’t as simple-minded as you seem to suppose it must be. (It’s always wiser to read a book before you explain what’s wrong with it.) I’ve read some literature myself, so I knew what kind of claim I was making.

    As for your “template” theory, that’s totally misplaced and wrong, but the explanation I give for that is too long for a blog post.

  8. No, Benjamin, you didn’t refute my argument. You stated some argument you mistakenly thought I had made and rebutted that one. You didn’t even address mine.

    I suggest you re-read the book to find out what I said about the “legend theory” there. I’ll help you along in a few days by explaining further on this site.

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